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Rail Time - a Model Train Blog

Rail Time - a Model Train Blog

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Okay, yes, I went to see Unstoppable. I had every expectation of not liking it because my "train buddies" almost to a man began to pick the movie apart before it ever reached the theaters. I expected, at best, it would be like Twister was to us real meteorologists: amusing but agonizingly disconnected from reality. But all those shots of SD40-2s on former PRR and B&O lines, plus shots of Wheeling & Lake Erie trains called to me. So I took the family.

I liked it.

THERE I SAID IT. I liked it a lot, actually. The rote old guy versus new guy dynamic, the predictable evil corporate boss putting cash above safety, and the regular suspension of physics, along with a few just plain mistakes (an SD40-2 does not generate 5000 HP, nor does it have problems running in reverse) were not enough to keep me from wanting to own the Blu-Ray.

What's to like? Well, the scenery is awesome. The mud season in western Pennsylvania is something I'm very familiar with... It's brown and desolate. Perfect for the story. The trains, well... Awesome too. The SD40-2 was a workhorse of Conrail and many other roads. The AC4400CWs were in a somewhat hokey scheme, but they do look menacing. Overall, the use of railroad jargon was just enough to feel somewhat realistic and not enough to overwhelm a non-railroad fan. And, for the most part, it's pretty close to correct.

The movie makes the situation much, much worse and more threatening than the real event, the so-called "Crazy Eights" runaway in Ohio in 2001, involving CSX SD40-2 #8888.

Wikipedia article on Crazy Eights

Overall, unless you have a railroad spike up your tailpipe, if you like trains, you'll enjoy this movie. Leave the physics book at home, please.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Expanding the Empire...

Like any good American, I see opportunity in real estate. Call it Manifest Destiny, or if that's offensive to you, call it something else. When I placed my 36" x 80" N scale model railroad into a rather large basement in Nebraska, it looked really small. I mean tiny. Since I model the mighty Pennsylvania Railraod, the self-proclaimed Standard Railroad of the World, I asked myself, what would the PRR do when confronted with the same situation?


Of course. It's so simple. But wait...! I'm a military guy, and I move every 2-3 years. How can I expand this thing and still know that it'll fit into some future home I haven't even seen yet? Well, that took a leap of faith. But how to expand? What to add?

The main thing holding me back from experiencing real model railroad operations on my glorified roundy-round was a lack of staging for off-layout trains. I had made a tiny, rickety 3-track yard that wasn't anything to look at and added only marginal play value. But this time I wanted to do it right. Not wired to do anything half-assed, I threw my whole ass into it and added a classification yard with an engine terminal. Because it sits "railroad east" of my fictional depiction of the PRR's famed Middle Division, it became the famous Enola Yard outside of Harrisburg, PA.

So now trains can be made up, broken down, or staged, and locomotives have a place to be serviced.

On the road again... Again.

So clearly I've not been much of a blogger. I've been active on multiple model railroad forums and have recently added a Facebook fan page for my layout, the N Scale Juniata Division... but a model blogger I ain't. But since I staked out this little corner of the Internets I figure it's high time I revisit Rail Time.

The biggest news recently has been the fact that we're moving AGAIN. I'm hitting the road tomorrow to the Florida panhandle and duty station number 7 for me. Now last time I had the movers move the Juniata Division in a crate I'd built. Well, this time the layout's twice as big. Oh yeah, I guess I didn't blog about that either... OK, I owe you another post! Anyway, this time it seemed more prudent just to move the thing myself:

The layout is shock-corded in place in a 5x8 U-Haul trailer. Here's hoping it doesn't bounce too much! And, if you're not keeping up with the Juniata Division's website, Facebook fan page, or the 4 model railroad forums I frequent, here's a shot of the layout with the new Enola Yard extension as it sat yesterday in the empty basement:

If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that planning up front for portability, though sometimes a real pain and an added expense, pays huge dividends down the road. You may not have as mobile a lifestyle as I do, but if you're in a starter home or have big plans for the future that involve a relocation, you can have your layout now instead of having to wait.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Larger than life - UP's Bailey Yard.

2,850 acres...
315 miles of track with 985 switches...
155 trains per day...
10,000 railcars sorted and 300 locomotives serviced per day...
Two receiving yards, two humps, two bowls, two departure yards, an intermodal yard, a coal car storage yard, a full-service locomotive shop, etc...

Words fall short when trying to convey the awesome size of Union Pacific's Bailey Yard in remote North Platte, Nebraska. This is the world's largest railroad yard by a wide margin. My family and I were fortunate enough to attend Union Pacific's second annual Train Fest this weekend at North Platte. Patricia was cool enough to go online and score us some tickets for a guided bus tour of Bailey Yard!

You can find a lot of info online about Bailey and it was even on an episode of the show
Modern Marvels. So rather than continuing to heap on the superlatives, I'll just post the pictures!

This was the view from the Golden Spike, Bailey's brand-new 7-story observation tower:

Bailey's locomotive shop:

Heritage SD70ACe units (Missouri Pacific and Missouri-Kansas-Texas) in North Platte:

Patricia in front of the Challenger (4-6-6-4) under steam!:

Changing out a wheelset at Bailey's RIP (repair-in-place) tracks:

A covered hopper rolls down the eastbound hump toward the east bowl:

A view toward the west end of the yard (run-through and eastbound receiving) from the flyover:

Three more heritage units (Southern Pacific, Chicago & Northwestern, and Denver & Rio Grande Western) at the Bailey locomotive shop:

Patricia and the boys in front of the D&RGW SD70ACe:

Thursday, August 28, 2008

What I Learned at Todd Treaster's House

Back in May, I was invited to an open house at Todd Treater's house in Burnham, PA. For those unaware, Todd is an engineer for Norfolk Southern, often working in helper (snapper) service over Horseshoe Curve or on the Lewistown Local, along the former Pennsylvania Railroad, then Penn Central, then Conrail, now Norfolk Southern Middle and Pittsburgh Divisions. Todd has an enormous N scale layout in his basement. The numbers are staggering; his model of Enola Yard alone is 54 feet long; he routinely runs trains in excess of 100 cars in length; his trains travel through six different rooms (including a bathroom) on their long journeys. Some 1500 N-scale locomotives and nearly 15,000 cars are available for use on the layout, or are on display in 50 glass cases around the basement. It's jaw-dropping. Todd's layout has been featured twice in N Scale Railroading magazine.

Todd has done more in 3 years' work on the current layout than most of us do in our entire model railroading careers. The result is a layout very heavy on scenic running, much like the real former PRR through central PA. We often focus our modeling efforts on towns, yards, and industrial areas, but in reality such scenes are separated by dozens of miles of just plain track and trees. Todd really nails that scenery-to-trains-and-towns ratio.

Moreover, Todd and his wife are fantastic hosts; Mrs Treaster's famous meatballs are amazing! They opened their house to friends and strangers alike. I brought my then 5-year-old son with me, and while he was very well behaved anyway (he's a really good kid), the Treasters gave him the run of the basement, and even let him pull a coal drag out of Enola Yard! We all received free T-shirts, and they gave my son a pair of train puzzles. Amazing!

My invitation included the wording "If you come, bring something to run!" I brought a box full of 1956 Pennsy stuff, including my kitbashed PRR M1 4-8-2, which ran like a dream on Todd's layout hauling "Mad" Max Magliaro's Fleet of Modernism passenger cars. Most impressive, however, were Todd's own trains, one approaching 300 cars in length, hauled by 6 SD80MACs. Todd says "Anything less than 100 cars is a local!"

So, what did I learn???

1. Looking over Todd's model of Enola yard, we saw Penn Central, Conrail, and Norfolk Southern; a veritable history of railroading in Pennsylvania for the past 40 years. On the day I was there, many of us had brought Pennsy steam-era stuff, and so that opened the bracket to 60 years of history. It was like a museum. What a warm, happy feeling! Here were all my childhood favorites, from what I saw running on Conrail and Amtrak as a young man to what I saw in the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, except that everything was running!

2. Since Todd's layout is very scenery-heavy, it works for almost any era. My 1950's era drag freight hauled by an L1s 2-8-2 looked just as at-home on Todd's layout as his CR/NS Triple Crown trains hauled by SD80MACs.

3. Todd doesn't get wrapped up in build dates, road numbers, or dimensional data like I tend to. How can he, building on the vast scale he does? I began to realize that Todd might be having more fun at this than I am, and that's saying something since only my family brings me more joy than trains.

4. Todd's trees tower over his trains. My trees are too small. Todd has the right scenery-to-trains ratio, but that even extends to his tree-to-train ratio. But since his ridges extend above eye level, the effect is amazing.

5. While I often look with disdain upon the code 80 track I used on my own layout, on a layout as vast as Todd's, you don't get wrapped up in that sort of thing. It's huge. And somehow, Todd has managed to carefully paint and ballast an incredible amount of track in addition to the other work on the layout in those three years; his track looks awesome. And, it's reliable as heck. That's rule one for an enjoyable model railroad; the track has to work all the time, every time.

By this time I had dabbled a little in expanding past my July 1956 PRR era and had purchased a few Conrail and Penn Central cars. After enjoying the rolling history of Pennsylvania railroading at Todd's house, and after meeting so many of the leading N scale eastern modelers, I decided to go for it and add a second roster to my small layout. Now I run Pennsy in 1956 or Conrail in 1980. This was in no small part a result of my wonderful time at Todd's house. This latest initiative has completely reinvigorated my zeal for the hobby. Best of all, my son still talks about Todd's layout, asking when we'll be able to build one just like it!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Where's Dave?

Hi, this is Dave's wife. Dave has been scarce from the forums/blogosphere from an emergency appendectomy Wednesday night. He's came home from the hospital Friday evening and is resting comfortably. He'll likely be back online this weekend.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Safe and sound

On 4 August we received our household goods here in Bellevue, Nebraska after moving from Apex, NC (by order of the USAF). We've been working hard on unpacking 14,000 pounds' worth of stuff, so it was only Saturday (my 34th birthday, incidentally) that I was able to open and set up my layout.

Last weekend, before the stuff came, I painted up the basement walls a nice bright white. Previously it had been used as a girl's bedroom and was painted alternating stripes of pink, purple, and a very loud red. Much primer was needed.

True to expectations (and the last move) it emerged from its plywood crate completely unscathed! I built the crate out of 5/8" plywood and framed it with 1x and 2x stock. I've photo-documented the entire process from tear-down to crating to loading to unloading to setup. I plan to submit it as an article to the N scale press.

The first train to operate over the relocated Juniata Division was a 1980s-era mixed freight led by Conrail GP38-2 #8097. It was followed shortly thereafter by PRR H10sb-class 2-8-0 #8756 with a 1950's-era local. The next task is reconnecting all of the signal controllers and the sound system.I can't find my Bright Boy, yet trains are running perfectly smooth in DCC without a track cleaning in over 3 months; this makes me a firm believer in "the more feeders the better." I think I have a total of 13 feeder pairs on this tiny layout.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Layout Withdrawl...

I boxed up my layout in late April, even though we weren't going to move until July. I figured since we were putting the house on the market on the first weekend in May, I didn't want prospective home buyers picking and prodding at the layout. Fortunately, we sold the house that first weekend it was on the market.

...but then I got real busy in the final stages of my PhD dissertation and defense, and I never did get a chance to set the layout back up. I've been hand-carrying all of my N scale trains (I trust the movers with the layout, but not the equipment), but they have no rails to run on.

When I get to Nebraska, I'll have a basement. There's a room set aside in the basement that's perfect for the layout, my workbench, and my railroad books. I plan to decorate it with my train pictures and railroad signs, and maybe even a display case.

As for the layout, I have big plans. Among the changes/modifications I'm considering:

1. Dual era structures and vehicles; one set for 1956, and one for 1980.
2. New scale-sized LED position light signals (I have these already; just need to build 'em).
3. Relaying track with code 55 (sorry, I just can't take the oversized code 80 anymore, no matter how well it works. It looks awful).
4. New staging yard with greater capacity.

Well, I can dream, anyway... I get my layout back on August 4th.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The theory of "good enough..."

…or when to stop counting rivets!

Tony Koester of MR/RMC fame has often spoken of a so-called “good enough” philosophy (citing V&O creator Allen McClelland as the source) for model railroading. In other words, for each one of us, there’s a point at which a model or scene is “good enough.”

I thought about this as I tried to codify my own threshold of “good enough,” and it began to remind me of differential equations from calculus. “Good enough” is nothing more than a unique solution to an initial value problem.

Let’s call the solution the “sweet spot.” This solution is the point at which the amount of work required to make a model more accurate exceeds the fun the modeler would have in doing so. So, let’s define two curves:

The red dashed line represents fun (scaled on a dimensionless, normalized range between zero and unity) and the solid black line represents work (scaled the same way). As a store-bought or scratch-built model becomes more and more accurate, it requires more and more exacting, tedious, and time-consuming work to accomplish. Theoretically, the amount of fun a modeler is having is simultaneously decreasing (i.e., the law of diminishing returns). The “sweet spot” is that level of accuracy whereby the modeler is still having fun but working hard to accomplish his goal; any more work and it stops being fun. Notice the curves are asymptotic; no model can ever achieve 100% prototype accuracy.

What makes this an initial value problem (i.e., the sweet spot is a unique solution to a very specific set of circumstances) is that the slope of these curves varies greatly from modeler to modeler, and from project to project. In other words, the skills, desires, and patience of the modeler affect the sweet spot location as does the choice of prototype, starting model (if applicable), availability of after-market details, paint, decals, photos, diagrams, etc.

So “good enough” is a constantly moving target; the reference frame is always changing. Perhaps quantum mechanics is a better context than math? You decide. But the sensitivity to initial conditions reminds me very much of partial differential equations, where each variable is dependent upon the others and a minor change in the choice of prototype or starting point yields a vastly different version of “good enough.”


I'm a waffler.

Not sure how that term came to mean flip-flopping on an issue (here's a start), but since it's election season, I'll use it here. In 25 years I went from modeling standard gauge HO Santa Fe (thanks to my first Bachmann train set) to standard gauge western freelance to Rio Grande Southern in HOn3 to freelance turn-of-the-last-century standard gauge Colorado freelance in HO (based on the Colorado Midland) to freelance early teens central PA standard gauge coal hauler (based on EBT and H&BTM) to N scale PRR 1950s in 2002.

And I've started waffling again.

A few months ago I started building a Conrail roster circa 1980; this was early Conrail when many locomotives and cars still wore the colors of their pre-Conrail owners with sloppy "CR" stencils barely covering the old paint. In contrast, many locomotives and cabin cars wore the new blue and white (Penn State?) scheme. Cabin cars (cabooses to non-PRR/CR types!) were still very much in use in 1980, as were many PRR and Penn Central cars in their original paint. It's a neat time to model. Plus, I was 6 at that time, and very impressionable. While railfanning with my Dad in PA at that time, we were usually in search of something more obscure, like the Stewartstown RR or the Maryland and Pennsylvania RR, but I always kept an eye on the Conrail/Amtrak mainline. I've been feeling nostalgic lately.

I guess it's a half-waffle.

I'm keeping the Pennsylvania RR equipment I've acquired and built. The good news is that the right-of-way didn't change much between 1956 (PRR) and 1980 (CR). The structures and vehicles changed, and the trees grew up a bit, but the scenery, bridges, and signals remained the same. I've mused aloud elsewhere on the web about how I might pull off a "dual-era" layout; it involves swapping trains, vehicles, and some structures. The real bonus is that it will help keep my tiny layout more interesting for a longer time. I hope that it can stick with me at least until I retire from the Air Force.

In the meantime, it's a fine waffle indeed.

Counting rivets

I recently read a post in the forum blaming so-called "rivet counters" for making the model railroading hobby too expensive and "out of reach" for the common man. It was a very bitter post written by someone who was obviously frustrated and looking to assign blame (after all, doesn't blaming someone else always feel better?). I took exception to that view... but other, more acrimonious posters that followed assured the thread was locked quickly. But the message is important; there's still this stereotype of the mythical "rivet counter" who goes around putting other model railroaders down and demanding perfection from the manufacturers, driving up the price. That no one can cite an example of these people is irrelevant; the myth is enough to incite hatred of all things prototypical.

Once upon a time they were also called "nit pickers." The nit-picker was someone who put the work of others down because it wasn't what he would have done. Usually nit-picking was accompanied by a dissertation of the nit-picker's vast knowledge of the subject matter. - EDIT: Read the comments section to learn were the term "rivet counter" comes from! - Oddly enough, when I was in Civil War reenacting, these same beasts were called "stitch counters." But then, most of us (in either hobby) took them in stride; we recognized their zeal to improve the standards of the hobby but dismissed their lack of people skills as the price.

But now there's this "guilt by association" whereby any of use who are interested in making our small trains look more like the big ones are labeled "rivet counters." That would be fine if that term didn't have such negative baggage. In a perfect world, rivet counters are people who want to assure the maximum prototype fidelity for their models. For example, when I built the 90F175 tender for this PRR class M1 4-8-2 in N scale from a pair of K4 tenders, I had to re-rivet the sides using a pin-vise, and I actually counted rivets:

Believe it or not, such behavior is sometimes viewed as "uptight" and "mean" by some in the mainstream hobby. I mean, after all, who would know it if I got it wrong?

...I would. And I model for me, not for anyone else. I can accept compromises (such as the driver diameter and valve gear for the M1 above; I couldn't get an eight-coupled mechanism with the correct 72" drivers and valve gear in N scale), but that's a personal choice for me. I don't force it on others, and neither have I seen other so-called "rivet counters" force their standards on the mainstream. Those of us who are deeply into prototype correctness tend to hang together in clumps where we can support and critique one another.

But where I make an adamant stand is the idea that "rivet counting" has made the hobby out of reach for many. Quite the contrary. Demanding more correct paint schemes and details from the manufacturers has resulted in the broadest and most correct range of products ever before offered. The cost rises for many reasons, and I doubt you can ascribe more of the rise to prototype fidelity than to, say, the cost of oil to manufacture (plastic is an oil product) and transport (it's all made in China) the stuff to the US. Perhaps there are those who would rather the hobby were still mainly Tyco almost-Alcos (see below) and generic 40-foot Athearn boxcars...

...but for the rest of us who love trains and want our models to look just like them, we are grateful to the rivet counters who work hand-in-hand (in most cases) with the manufacturers to get it right. After all, there's so much info available for free on the internet from blueprints to hundreds of thousands of prototype photos, that for a manufacturer to commit a major error on a model of a specific prototype is almost harder than getting it right. Many prototype railroads have technical and historical societies that will work with the manufacturer for free to ensure the new models are correct, including the rivets.

I'm a rivet-counter, and I'm proud of it. My choice of modeling style is just as valid as laying EZ-track on a grassmat and does not impinge upon anyone else's enjoyment of the hobby. There's something very, very satisfying about watching a locomotive you built run past with a string of hopper cars, all with the right number of rivets!

EDIT 2: I don't profess all of my models to be exact to the prototype. That most are made slightly closer to prototype than when they first came out of the box is what's important to me. This is only because of my deep, abiding love for the prototype (i.e., the real thing) and the resultant desire to better represent it on my model railroad, and not as a means to separate myself from the mainstream or assign myself some self-delusional elevated status among hobbyists.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Movin' on...!

As part of the process of my military transfer (known as a "PCS" for Permanent Change of Station) from NC State University to Offutt AFB, NE, the "big orange truck" (as my son called it) came and took all of our stuff. Including my train layout.

Either I have incredible faith in Allied Van Lines or I've figured something out in my 12 years of moving with the Air Force. Maybe it's both, really...

See, I had a 3'-wide hollow-core door layout when we moved here to North Carolina from Florida. It was also based on the Pennsylvania RR. I eventually scrapped it for the current layout for reasons unrelated to moving. But, that layout made it to NC from FL without a single tree out of place. I'd built a crate out of 5/8" plywood to transport it. Although I later cannibalized the layout, I kept the crate. Since the new layout is the same size as the old, the crate still fits.

Here's my layout taking the first step toward Nebraska (and a nice basement)...

I'd post more about this, but I plan to submit an article to the model railroad press about it (assuming the layout makes it intact; I suspect it will). So, you'll just have to wait!

A Conrail Survivor...

In 1999, Conrail was split up between Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation after both railroads fought a bitter bidding war over Conrail which was eventually judged to be pointless. That was almost 10 years ago. So, the chances of catching locomotives still painted in Conrail Blue get smaller every year. In fact, Norfolk Southern has vowed to eradicate all Conrail Blue from its locomotive fleet by the end of this year.

So imagine my surprise when I caught this GP38-2 on the former Durham and Southern line between Cary and Apex, NC on 10 July 2008, with a CSX re-number but still in Conrail blue. Notice the "can-opener" logo. Conrail introduced the Conrail Quality logo (sometimes known to railfans as the Q-logo) in about 1991. So this paint job has to date from about 1991 or early, since it doesn't have the Q-logo. Wow. Still looks pretty good!